Research Paper: Comparative Study of Hwang's Play and Puccini's Opera Madama Butterfly

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Transformation of Colonialism in Madama Butterfly and M. Butterfly

As the curtain falls on Act III of Giacamo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, the sobbing words of Lt. B.F. Pinkerton echo through the hall, "Butterfly, Butterfly, Butterfly," with the pentatonic tones of the Bonzo theme, and not a dry eye in the house. In the closing lines of David Hwang's M.Butterfly, Gallimard, the French diplomat and pseudo-spy tells us, "I have a vision… of the Orient." Both endings express two concurrent themes: the nostalgic pining for the past and the realization that the colonial paradigm resulted in tragedy. Symbolically, the tragedy of the effects of the individual on the oriental mystique and resulting tragic loss engendered brings the conclusion of both works to the type of catharsis so masterfully moving.

Puccini's Madama Butterfly -- Puccini's Madama Butterfly was a 1906 opera that had five permutations before its final form. It is one of the most oft performed operas in the world, and Number 1 in Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America (Groos, 154-201). The opera is not the first version: Puccini based the opera on a combination of an 1898 short story by the same name and the 1887 novel Madame Chrysantheme.

Madama Butterfly is set in Nagasaki around the turn of the century. Lieutenant B.F. Pinketon, an American Naval Officer, is touring his new home with the marriage broker Goro, who has found Pinkerton a bride. The American consulate arrives, and Pinkerton begins to brag about his new house and bride, both purchased for 999 years, "with the right to cancel every month." In a stirring patriotic diatribe, Donvunque al mondo (Throughout the world), Pinkerton tells the counsulate, Sharpless, that Yankees may come and go, every port in the world is to be had, as are marriages in every port. Sharpless, a middle-aged man, is critical of this view, knowing full well how this type of behavior is tinged with hurt for the locals. However, Butterfly and her enterouge arrive and the marriage ceremony concludes with a surprise appearance of Butterfly's uncle, the Bonze who has noticed she has been seen converting to Christianity in honor of her new husband, "I am following my destiny and, full of humilty, bow to Mr. Pinkerton's God." The Bonze renounces Butterfly and all the guests are herded out by Pinkerton who dismisses them with "You have renounced us, and we renounce you," truly leaving Butterfly alone in her universe. Buttefly is clearly in love, and believes that it is good fortune for her to be chosen by such an esteemed and noble man. She is young, tender, and naive and fearful of her wedding night. The Act concludes with Vogliatemi bene (love me please) and asks Pinkerton whether it is true that, in foreign lands, men catch butterflies and pin them to boxes. Pinkerton admitws this is true, but says, "Do you know why? So that she'll not fly away." He embraces her and says, "I have caught you, you are mind…" to which Butterfly replies, "Yes, for life" (Puccini).

Three years have now passed and Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki, are almost out of money. Butterfly has had a child but is confused. Pinkerton told her he would return when Spring comes and the robin nests. She ponders that in America Spring must not come every year. Sharpless arrives but is clearly moved by her plight since he knows Pinkerton has married an American woman. Goro has tried to remarry Butterfly, but she will have none of it. Sharpless tries in vain to tell her about Pinkerton but settles for the question, "What would you do if he never returned." Butterfly calmly replies that she would die, but flees into the house and brings the child out. She pleads with Sharpless to write Pinkerton and let him know he has a son. The Act ends with Butterfly staring out into the harbor after hearing cannon shots signaling the arrival of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton's ship. Exhausted, Butterfly falls asleep. Secretly Pinkerton, and his new wife Kate, sneak into the garden and are confronted by Suzuki. Sharpless rebuffs Pinkerton, "I tol you, didn't I? Do you remember? When she gave you her hand. Take care, I said, she believes in you and has been waiting for you." Butterfly discovers that Pinkerton is alive, has married an American, and is coming for the child. In an impassioned final aria, Con onor muore (to die with honor), Butterfly reads the inscription on her father's knife. "Who cannot live with honor must die with honor." She dresses her son as an American, kisses him goodbybye, sets him on the floor and blindfolds him. Butterfly then steps behind a screen and commits seppuku (Ibid).

Hwang's M. Butterfly -- David Hwang wrote his 1988 play, M. Butterfly, based loosely on the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Bourisoct and Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking Opera singer. David Cronenberg adapted the play into a 1993 film with Jeremy Irons and John Lone in the leading roles. Combining much of the pathos and emotionality of Puccini's Butterfly, Hwang's play is centered in China and concerns Rene Gallimard, a minor civil servant attached to the French embassy. He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, who is actually a man portraying a woman.

Sadly, Song is a spy who uses Gallimard to glean valuable intelligence regarding the French intention in Indochina. Gallimard is sent back to France in disgrace for his role in completely misrepresenting the issues that surround the Vietnamese conflict. Back in France Gallimard is unhappy, divorces his wife, and is unable to maintain his professional career. Song, in the meantime, is of no more use to the Chinese government, and is placed in a reeducation camp. Gallimard is finally able to arrange for Song to come to France, and the two resume their affair and stay together for 20 years. However, once the truth is finally revealed, Gallimard is convicted of treason and sent to prison. He is unable to accept the truth that his "perfect woman" was actually a man, and a spy, and goes quietly insane and retreats back into the past, to a time when life was perfect. Finally, unable to face any sort of reconciliation of the facts with his view, he commits seppuku while Song quietly watches, smoking a cigarette (Hwang).

The Merging of an Idea -- the historical antecedent for the theme of our two Butterflies' really predates Puccini. However, it is Puccini's Cio-Cio-San that has touched the hearts of so many and served as an inspiration for M. Butterfly and numerous other treatments. Sadly, neither story has a happy ending, nor the tension that percolates throughout the dramas is almost Greek in tragedy -- the audience knows all is doomed; we just wait for the knife (Kebede). Clearly both Pinkerton and Gallimard are sexually obsessed Westerners who will do anything to fulfill their physical needs. Pinkerton initially compares Cio-Cio-San with the same disregard as he has for the lease on his home. He leaves Nagasaki, does not write, does not send money, and likely has encounters in other ports. A modern audience often asks -- why did he just not visit a brothel, after all, he didn't stay long with Butterfly. But Pinkerton is an officer, and the cultural throes of the marriage broker Goro simply threw a solution into his path. For both Gallimard and Pinkerton, the idea of personal colonialism goes deep -- they must buttress their own sense of inadequacy in a strange culture by reigning power over a woman; indeed, women must suffer through this because men are weak, yet who suffers?

Gallimard is much more officious about this pain; it is more intentional, which does not make it any more bearable. While Pinkerton's cruelty is in his distance and lack of thought, Gallimard also has an affair with Renee, a young Western woman. When he visits Renee, he is sexually heightened by what seems to be his infliction of betrayal and hurt onto Song -- "It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee." Song knows about the affair, but has her own secret, and possibly forgives the dalliance since she knows she too, is being duplicitous. We do not, however, believe that Cio-Cio-San is actually aware of Pinkerton's betrayal until she is faced with "that strange woman in the garden," despite the signals from all around her. and, who can say which is the cruelest act -- causing Cio-Cio-San to be abandoned by her family and culture (she has only Suzuki) with no money and false hopes, or do intentionally have sexual relations with another woman to taunt Song?

Transformations and Themes -- Thematically, one can certainly believe we are manipulated by stereotypes: The brash Westerner, the delicate Oriental, the mysterious society where nothing is as it seems. The very idea of colonialism sets up a hierarchy in which one… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Comparative Study of Hwang's Play and Puccini's Opera Madama Butterfly.  (2010, April 27).  Retrieved September 15, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/comparative-study-hwang-play-puccini/140785

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"Comparative Study of Hwang's Play and Puccini's Opera Madama Butterfly."  Essaytown.com.  April 27, 2010.  Accessed September 15, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/comparative-study-hwang-play-puccini/140785.